by Len Lear
When Wyndmoor resident Russell Janzen began taking ballet lessons at the callow age of 6 at Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education, it was quickly apparent that he had a special talent. By the time he was 13 he was taking seven ballet classes a week, and it was evident even to the most untutored observer that the Germantown Friends School student (from 7th through 10th grade; Norwood-Fontbonne before that) had no ceiling to his incandescent talent. As a result, he spent his junior and senior years of high school at the Professional Children’s School in Manhattan. While there, Russell took two dance classes a day and had between one and three hours of rehearsal in addition.
Janzen’s position in the world of ballet reached its apogee last month when he was named a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet (NYCB). That makes Russell one of the highest ranking ballet dancers in the U.S. Janzen became an apprentice at the NYCB in 2007, joined the corps de ballet in 2008 and was promoted to soloist in 2014.
“The filmed version of George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’ was what drew me to ballet initially,” Russell, now 27, told us in an interview last week, “but I’m not sure I could say exactly what kept me coming back. I think ballet really appealed (and appeals) to two very different sides of myself: the disciplined side that likes to know when something is right and when something is wrong, and the expressive side. Ultimately, though, dancing is fun. As a kid I just loved when we got to fly around the studio and eat up space.”
Russell attended two summer programs at The School of American Ballet, which is affiliated with NYCB, before enrolling full-time. There he received the 2007 Mae L. Wien Award for Outstanding Promise, given to the most talented dancers at the school.
Did Russell ever feel he was missing out on some of the things that other kids do after school, like sports, TV, social media, etc.? “Not really,” he said. “I had my thing that I loved, and that kept me from feeling like I was missing out. Also, it wasn’t until I was older that I really had to compromise academics or a social life. While I lived in the Philadelphia area, my life outside of ballet was very full. GFS is a wonderful school. I was getting a rigorous academic experience there and was able to participate in school shows and the choir.”
Since joining NYCB, Janzen has performed featured roles in George Balanchine’s “Chaconne,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” “Monumentum Pro Gesualdo,” “The Nutcracker,” “Orpheus,” Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbündlertänze,” “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” Peter Martins’ “Barber Violin Concerto,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Swan Lake,” Justin Peck’s “Everywhere We Go,” Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “Les Carillons” and many more.
How did Russell’s parents, who still live in Wyndmoor, feel about his devotion to dance? “They were very supportive and are very supportive. Neither of them have a dance background, so they have only ever been invested in it because it’s something I love. I know they would be exactly the same no matter what I chose to dedicate my life to.”
Ballet demands a great deal from the body, as much as from the body of any professional athlete. Has Russell ever suffered any serious injuries? “YES!” he insisted. “When I was really young, like most people, my body was so resilient! I could walk into class and just start jumping around. In my first four or five years in the company, I had a series of injuries that kept me from dancing and really impeded my development as a dancer. Or at least I thought they did.
“I’ve sprained both my ankles, and then I herniated a disc in my back. That was particularly bad. I was on my back for three months; it was eight months before I was back onstage, over a year before I returned to dancing fully, and years before I felt confident about the strength of that part of my spine. I’m tall, and most of what I do is partnering, so my back has pretty much always been an issue for me. I spend a good portion of my week ensuring that it stays strong and stable with daily physical therapy sessions and a long list of strengthening and stabilizing exercises that I rarely get through in one go.”
Russell, who says his idea of perfect happiness would be “a string of anxiety-free days,” almost had to let go of his goal of becoming a principal dancer at NYCB “when I was new in the company and kept getting injured.” But his relentless determination won the day.
What are the positives and negatives for Russell about living in New York City? “New York City is a HARD city to live in. It’s stressful and crowded, and people are grumpy, and it really fosters this idea that there’s always something better out there you could be doing or experiencing, and that can make for unhappy living. It’s exhausting.
“What I love about living in New York, though, is that it allows me to dance for a company like NYCB. I can attend the New School, where I have had some wonderful professors, and I get to see art and performances all the time. There is so much dance, theater, music and art in the city. I love being able to see something new and invigorating on a regular basis.”
How many more years does Janzen think he can dance professionally? “When I’m really hurting, I think I have a month left. Ha! I’m not really sure. Most people in the company retire between the age of 32 and 37. So if all goes well, I have another five to 10 years where my body will allow me to dance the way I want to.”
For more information, visit nycballet.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org